Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Answering Reader Mail: Employment Lawyers, Attn to Detail, and the Assistant Mindset

“I am an executive assistant. I knew going in that my level of experience was low for what this job typically requires, but my bosses seemed aware of that and willing to allow me a learning curve.

I have been here less than a year, and my responsibilities have increased in some ways. However, I've also been brought in for reviews every three months and told that my attention to detail is lacking. I am not sure how to cultivate this skill or get better at it. They just re-evaluated me after giving me two weeks to improve and are holding up three minor mistakes I made as evidence of a continued problem. They claim that I haven't internalized the "assistant mindset" yet. Any ideas on how to best approach this?

Our HR director has also gotten anonymous complaints of a bad smell coming from me. However, it is inconsistent from day to day and no one can describe what it smells like. No one in my personal life can detect it at all! In good faith, I have spent a lot of money to remedy the problem, but I feel like I am being harassed. Would it be off base to talk to an employment lawyer?”

Dear PC,

Thank you for your question. I’m so sorry to hear you are going through this. It doesn’t sound very fun. I’m not sure how new of a reader you are to my blog, but some of my other posts and the new site I write at should be able to help you. In particular, I have 3 posts called 10 Tips to Be A Better Executive Assistant.

To address your question to me… Attention to detail encompasses a lot. I sympathize with you in that all assistants will make mistakes because we are only human. No one is perfect. It’s a little harder to cultivate that skill set because it’s so vague or it entails many minute things so miniscule they are hard to pin point. Off the top of my head, it means triple checking dates, facts, and following up, it’s anticipating your boss’ needs, it’s making connections in understanding how things affect each other/relate although it doesn’t seem like it from the outset. It’s being aware, poised, and ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice and even realizing it’s time to switch gears. It can also relate to social cues, reading between the lines, and keeping track of a large amount of information and tracking different projects and multi-tasking simultaneously.

Since your letter was brief, I can only assume certain things and generally help you out. However, when the constructive criticism is only “more attention to detail” and the “assistant mindset” they are almost setting you up to fail. That’s like saying “communicate better.” Does that mean empathize and sympathize more, speak clearly and enunciate, be concise, don’t be overly emotional, follow up quicker, quit fidgeting during presentations, stop avoiding confrontation or be more persistent, make more eye contact? It could be a million things. I understand they gave you 3 examples, but I can only assume there are 50 more they haven’t even thought of yet just because it hasn’t happened or things are so ingrained in their mindset of the perfect assistant that they assume everyone knows to do x, y, z or what even x, y, z are.

I’m more concerned at the rate of the reviews they've given you in such a short amount of time and the 2-week period to improve. If they are handling this very well they are supportive, giving you a lot of gentle feedback, giving you tools, a mentor, or allowing you to take classes, read books, etc. If they are unsure of how to deal with this situation, their patience might be running a little thin.

I can only assume you had some other stellar admin qualities not directly related to being an executive assistant when they hired you since everyone understood your level of experience was a little lower. Most often, people want the odds in their favor to prevent wasting anyone’s time and bleeding company money. Any time a company has to hire someone new they lose so much time, money, energy, and productivity in recruiting, overhead, training, etc. It’s not easy finding an assistant that fits in. If anything, I am really surprised when someone is hired who hasn’t had the EXACT same experience for a really long time. To bring someone up to speed in the basics of a job description is a lengthy process which is why they want to bring someone in who can hit the ground running.

While this may sound pessimistic, to assess any situation, it’s best to focus on the negatives. The positives are easy to deal with, it’s the negatives that make life or situations so hard to tolerate. If you can tolerate the negatives, you will enjoy the positives easily. It’s the 80-20 rule. You can only have 80% satisfaction and 20% will always be problematic. Any time you switch, hoping for greener pastures, it will just be ANOTHER/DIFFERENT set of problems within the 20%. So the 20% you dislike now, can you see yourself dealing with it for the next 3 or 5 years?

I’d advise against talking to an employment lawyer. Unless you are loaded, it will cost you a lot of time and money to see if you even have a case. And if you do, the chances of you winning are probably slim. And while it’s very noble to fight for a cause, your career and employment prospects will suffer the most and probably immediately. Yes, the best scenario would be you paving the way for future generations to come, but if modern history, politics, and society are any indication, these things take time...

The question really comes down to, what do you want out of life and your career? Do you want other people’s actions and perceptions to affect you so much you consult a lawyer and take time out of your work life or personal time? Or do you want to learn and grow and get promoted up the ladder at your current company or a new one and control what you can – your thoughts, reactions, behaviors, and life/career trajectory?

I can see you are in a very difficult and uncomfortable position. I trust that you will think things over with care and some soul searching. I’m not sure how helpful I was to you, but please keep me posted. I wish you my best.

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